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Blog Post|5 minutes

Managing Your Invisible Workforce

Managing Your Invisible Workforce
February 1st

To say that things have changed since March 2020 is so commonplace it’s becoming trite. Everybody knows that people have worked from home where possible. HR and IT functions have dovetailed as never before.

The HR personnel are therefore likely to be working from home, but they have an additional pressure: they are supporting, and their managers are managing, teams they can’t see. Some organizations already had provisions for home workers which is fine, but before the pandemic those were people who wanted to work from home rather than those who were forced by circumstances. Motivating and including the new group requires different management methods.

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Fortunately, the technology was robust enough to deal with the situation at least from a transactional, functional point of view. There has been a great deal of coverage of digitalization over the last few years and this has led to a great deal of technical support including updates and maintenance being performed remotely in the first place. Those same pieces of technology that supported the willing home workers were fit for purpose when it came to the reluctant as well.

The wiser companies used those technical interventions to do more than repair and maintain systems. More on that later, but what really changed was the management of the people involved.

Many standard (if dated) management techniques involve standing over someone and watching them work and understanding that they are working because they are physically in their workplace. When they live in the workplace this is no longer feasible.

A management technique that can be substituted is management by output rather than by face time. Deploying metrics to look at outcomes rather than how long a task has taken can not only enthuse staff to work harder to maximize free time once a task is complete but it also has the benefit of treating them like adults.

An adjustment in trust is essential to manage in this way. Recruiting the right people to work from home is a luxury companies no longer have when it’s compulsory but supporting those people so that they do indeed work from home requires motivation and sensitivity. It is also important to understand that too often motivation to work isn’t the problem; having the confidence to stop when there is no particular reason to step away from the computer is a skill many employees will have to work on. In the book, The Smarter Working Manifesto (Van de Houtte and Clapperton, 2014) author Philip Van de Houtte comments that his own workforce at Plantronics (now part of Poly) had to be educated to stop work and allow themselves private time.

Part of this lies in measuring outputs by all means but setting realistic output targets.

People issues

Something that isn’t entirely new to HR but which has received a lot more attention since the pandemic broke is “wellness” – not simply “have you got Covid-19?” but covering mental wellbeing, stress and other related issues. As mentioned, some used technical upgrades and repairs as a reason to touch base. Output-based management based on unrealistic targets can all too easily lead to burnout.

This is another area in which technology can help. Nexthink client ABN AMRO, a large Dutch Bank, deployed the Engage platform. “We often used Nexthink’s Engage capabilities to help troubleshoot common end-user problems and to proactively communicate with employees before any planned digital disruptions,” said Jelmer Berendsen, Nexthink Enablement Lead at ABN’s Digital Workplace team.

The bank also took advantage of Nexthink Engage to identify underperforming devices and connect directly with remote employees. “We were interested in better understanding our remote users, checking in on their wellbeing, and seeing if they needed different digital tools and support,” said Berendsen. IT turned to Nexthink’s automated campaigns to target certain subsets of users with helpful, on-screen surveys and messages. Their efforts quickly paid off—employees responded in record numbers and the IT team was able to collect meaningful feedback on their colleagues’ computing experiences and wellbeing.

It’s important to note that the technology is important in the equation but at its best it’s a tool to communicate with people. No algorithm is going to be an adequate substitute for a business asking its employees how they are coping; the difficulty arises when there are thousands of them so the process needs to be automated without appearing impersonal. Mechanisms like questionnaires and surveys are terrific but the human beings have to get the questions right.

Solid employee-centric IT is the backbone of managing in this new environment. It’s important because things are unlikely to change back to the old ways completely, at least not any time soon. Mastering the management of an invisible team is a business imperative – luckily the change has happened at a time when the tools are available.

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